Ep. 21: Can We Talk About Climate Change Now?

 Floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey surround homes in Port Arthur, Texas. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey surround homes in Port Arthur, Texas. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

First Hurricane Harvey inundated Houston, then Irma unleashed savage winds on the Caribbean and parts of Florida. And, oh, the fires - exacerbated by a severe drought - raging in the Pacific Northwest, choking the skies of Big Sky country. All of these events have links to climate change, scientists say. And increasingly sophisticated climate science is able to tell us a lot more about the role climate change is playing in each event.  But while Hurricane Irma was bearing down on South Florida last week, EPA administrator Scott Pruitt told reporters that now is not the time to talk about climate change and its impacts on these terrifying storms.

Ben Kirtman is a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School for Marine and Atmospheric Sciences. We caught up with him in Atlanta where he had evacuated from Hurricane Irma. He says now is exactly the time when it’s most important to talk about climate change.

“When you think about how you want to recover from the storm, and ensure that that recovery allows you to be more resilient in the face of another Harvey or another Irma, then you really do need to talk about climate change. I think this is the ideal time -  as we start embarking on a recovery - to think about how we do that. The United States has a lots of hazards, and we need to understand how those challenges are going to be changing in the future. Accusing someone who wants to ensure that lives are saved and communities are recovering quickly of politicizing climate change, that's really not the issue. The issue is how do we recover quickly? And that requires us discussing climate change.”

Dr. Kirtman says one way to think about climate change in Florida is that it's happening right now, not in the future.

“It's a current problem. And the boots on the ground --  the city planners, the managers  -- they all have to deal with this problem today. They're coming to the realization that the trends they see today show no signs of reversing themselves. There's no scientific evidence whatsoever that the sea level rise we see today is going to stop, or the warming is going to stop, and so they have to respond. And for them this debate over whether humans are involved or not is a little bit silly. So they're focusing on trying to figure out how are they going to garner resources to to make sure Miami Beach is able to deal with sea level rise.”

The Trump administration has proposed a 17 percent cut to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the federal agency responsible for a lot of the climate and weather research. They run the weather satellites that kept many people in Florida safe because they were able to track the storm. So what impact could cutting NOAA’s budget have on places like South Florida?

“The previous Congress passed The Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act of 2017. And that law has great things in it about improving hurricane forecasts and the global prediction system. This the system that we use to predict the intensity and track of hurricanes, and NOAA really needs a major retooling of that model. However, the president's budget request completely guts that effort. This is a tremendous blow to all of the parts of the United States that are vulnerable to hurricanes because we need the best possible information so that we know who has to evacuate and when. And I really feel very strongly that the president's budget request is gutting that effort, and that is a major problem.”

Mentioned in This Episode:

NOAA

The Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act of 2017

This episode was hosted by Reid Frazier. Trump on Earth is produced by The Allegheny Front, a Pittsburgh-based environmental reporting project, and Point Park University's Environmental Journalism program.

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